A View from a Hill (2005) dir. Luke Watson
In 2005, after nearly three decades of inactivity, the BBC brought A Ghost Story for Christmas back for that year's holiday season. Apparently having learned their lesson from the backlash against the final two entries of the 1970s series (the ones without, you know, ghosts), the program returned with two adaptations of hitherto unproduced M.R. James stories. The first, A View From a Hill, does a fine job of capturing the Edwardian look, but falters in most other respects. The odd attempts at updating the fright components for modern audiences are regrettable, as sharply edited jump cut jump scares aren't exactly what one associates with mannered ghost tales. Modern sensibilities towards characterization also detract from the story: though the personalities of the three central characters are all intensified and thus help make them more well-defined (timid, proper Fanshawe (Mark Letheren); frivolous, cheeky Squire Richards (Pip Torrens); stodgy, sullen Patten (David Burke)), this also works towards making them all rather unsympathetic, and it's tough to become anxious over the safety of characters that one doesn't particularly care for. But perhaps the largest issue with this return installment is the choice of "A View from a Hill" as the story to adapt. More so than many of his offerings, this tale is singularly undramatic (though possessing a novel central concept of a pair of haunted binoculars that can see one's immediate surroundings as they existed in the past), and so to adapt it into a compelling television feature required a slew of adjustments and additions to the source narrative. Some additions, like the climactic search party discovery, are less ill-conceived than poorly executed (the identity and fate of the body discovered is not immediately clear). Others, like Fanshawe's daytime trip to the ruin of the cathedral accompanied by the magical binoculars, are better, though perhaps rob the story of some of its mystery. But I found this particular adaptation to falter most in its omissions, for why adapt this story only to leave out its two most chilling parts?: it's an adaptational crime that we're prevented from seeing the ghostly hanging on Gallows Hill and the binoculars leaking black bone ooze.
Number 13 (2006) dir. Pier Wilkie
Among those covered thus far, Number 13 adapts my favorite James story of the bunch, and that might be coloring my opinion of it. I say this so that you can adjust your reception of my assessment however you see fit when I tell you that it stinks. It transforms its protagonist, Professor Anderson (Greg Wise)-- a generally amiable chap in the source story-- into an unbearable upper-class snoot who turns up his nose to everything and everyone. He's an abominable personality, so again (like with A View from a Hill) we care not one iota for what becomes of him. Also like the previous installment, Number 13 bungles the representation of its supernatural activity. The story's ghoulish singing and dancing emanating through the walls from the nonexistent Room 13 are replaced with stock ominous creaks and teasing ghostly laughter. The yellow, monstrously hairy arm that reaches out from the room and attempts to drag one of the characters inside is lost in favor of a bland black leather gloved hand. This is the new series low. The Ice House, this dubious position's previous occupant, had its share of narrative problems, but it also wasn't burdened with being a literary adaptation. Number 13 is one, and even if we attempt to divorce it from any of the expectations carried over from appreciation of the story it's still difficult to claim that this film does anything but fumble completely. After only a two year resurgence, A Ghost Story for Christmas died for the second time after Number 13. Cause of death: a one-two punch of mediocrity. (Caveat: though the BBC did produce some more annual ghost stories around Christmastime up through 2010, these are generally not considered a part of the official A Ghost Story for Christmas program).
Whistle and I'll Come to You (1968) dir. Jonathan Miller & Whistle and I'll Come to You (2010) dir. Andy de Emmony
The BBC has also twice produced adaptations of one of M.R. James's most popular ghost tales, "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad," though neither falls under the A Ghost Story for Christmas series. The first was produced a few years before that series began, for a long-running program titled Omnibus, which generally produced short documentary features. It's a strong film and an interesting counterpoint to the two above films' uses of added characterization. James himself is rather light on character (as most of the 1970s adaptations attest to), with most of his protagonists being affable but colorless fellows who unwittingly bumble their way into supernatural trouble. While there might be enough compelling elements in a fifteen page story to excuse such a lack of complexity, the temptation to develop the characters a bit in a forty minute film should be expected. A View from a Hill and Number 13 wish to do this and so end up adding mannerisms and attitudes until their characters become detestable. However, Whistle and I'll Come to You's protagonist, Professor Parkins (Michael Horndern), is-- with his quiet muttering, awkward loitering, atrocious eating habits, and general social incompetence-- quite a departure from James's less complex young professor and is far from a hero, but he's also rather sympathetic in his pathetic, elderly eccentricity. (It also doesn't hurt that Hornden gives his performance his strangest). Like one of James's characters, we feel that he is essentially an innocent thrust into a terrifying and dangerous encounter due to his unfailing rationalism (he's a man who questions the semantics of the term "ghost"), but his development allows us to learn a bit more about the interior psychological state that drives him to the point of gibbering while sucking his thumb after seeing a bed sheet rise into the air. Director Johnathan Miller and cinematographer Dick Bush film the story in luscious and foreboding black and white photography, favoring close-ups and long takes of seaside hotel and landscape tedium, which complement the story's focus on loneliness and isolation. Its visualizations of the haunting are filmed in a belabored slow motion, which helps make a bit of cloth suspended by wire a tad more menacing and visually dynamic. With some small and tasteful variations, it follows the basic plot line of the source story. It's slow, deliberately paced, and in this way one of the most Jamesian of all the adaptations.
By contrast, a 2010 remake starring John Hurt is about the farthest thing from M.R. James's literary atmosphere that one could conceive of. His source tale is transmogrified into, essentially, a doomed love story (unfathomable in the antiquarian library) and populated with loud banging on doors in place of slow suspense. John Hurt's James Parkin is also a developed character (here as an elderly man returning to the seaside location of his honeymoon after depositing his catatonic wife in a rest home), and quite sympathetic for it. In fact, he's a nice old man and his loneliness is more circumstantial than self-wrought, which makes the film's ultimate treatment of him quite cruel. Very little of Andy de Emmony's Whistle and I'll Come to You resembles James's story on the most basic of levels: there's no sheet ghost, no strained interaction with other hotel guests, no questioning of rational thought or superstition, and there's not even the titular whistle (!) (A haunted ring suffices. Ugh). In truth, if the film hadn't been given the title it has been, it would be a passable ghostly yarn that would only obliquely remind of James's story. It would still be a bit harsh in its tragedy, but it would not be a wholly ineffective entertainment. But as an adaptation (especially of one of a master's most beloved tales), it is wholly deficient. One hopes that if the BBC returns to James's work in the future-- as one hopes they will-- they'll do so with both the respect and freedom of creativity that they used to.